Beau Ellington Best Images of 2023 Brolin Mawejje Chloe Ricketts Courtney Dauwalter Dan Cnossen Dee Caffari Eric Larsen Erin Matson Glen Plake Jak Crawford Kemit-Amon Lewis Michael Wardian Nick Baumgartner Steven Holtz Thaddeus Young

2023 Athletes

Adeline Gray Ahmed Shareef Andrew Ladd Ashleigh Johnson Bella Mir Brigette Lacquette Cade Hall Camille Conrad Charlie Engle Chris Nikic Christian Taylor Craig Cunningham Cyrus Gray Diana Lee Inosanto Gabby Scott Hannah Bergemann Hilary Baude + Matt Cavanaugh Ilona Maher Jacob Moran Jalen Wilson Jen Welter Jessie Diggins Joe Blanton Jordan Gray Jordyn Wieber Kamali Thompson Kim Seevers Larry Bowa Lucas Chianca Mark Appel McKenzie Siroky Merijn Tinga Michael Bishop Noelle Lambert Pete DeVries Rachel Kuehn Rebecca Rusch Samantha Hislop Samarria Brevard Sanja Tomašević Sara Kohrogi Scott Darling Sonya Wilson Steve Mesler Steven Nyman Tanard Davis Tara Llanes Tia + Rio Watson Top Stories of 2023 Tori Sullivan Tricia Byrnes

Steven Holtz

“It’s like I was walking into a new world.” A promising hockey career. A life-threatening illness. What one man’s near-death experience can teach us about perseverance.

2 months ago

Latest Post Kemit-Amon Lewis by Matt Keyser public
Audio story presented by

Want the story behind the stories? Join our newsletter for bits and bites you won’t get elsewhere.

The house was oddly quiet, especially for a group of young 20-somethings living in a college town. On this particular night, there were no late-night parties or overnight video gaming for the four men living here. No, not on this night. Because on this night, the University of Michigan hockey team, for which the four of them play, had returned from a three-hour road trip to South Bend, Indiana, where the Wolverines split a double-header with Notre Dame. 

Three of the players were tired, and another was sick. Tonight was about rest. But first, Jacob Truscott had to use the bathroom. As he walked down the dark hallway, he passed Steven Holtz’s bedroom. Holtzy, as his teammates call him, missed the recent road trip because he hadn’t felt well. He thought it was a common cold, ripe with headaches, fatigue, and a lack of appetite. A weekend of rest was bound to do him some good.

But as Truscott passed by Holtz’s room, he heard his teammate’s short, sharp breaths laboring within. He knocked and asked Holtz if he was okay. No response. Truscott went to the bathroom and knocked again before returning to his room. Again, no response. That wasn’t like Holtzy. Truscott opened the door. 

There, Holtz was convulsing in his bed, foaming at the mouth, as his face turned purple and he gasped for air. Truscott screamed for his roommates. Suddenly, all of Holtz’s movements stopped. 

It all happened so fast that it’s tough to say what exactly happened next. One moment, you think your best friend is sleeping; the next, he’s dying in front of you. Someone called 9-1-1. Paramedics arrived and transported Holtz to the hospital.  Police officers questioned his roommates about what happened.

Were drugs involved?

Drugs? With Holtzy? No way. 

Was it a suicide attempt? 

Holtzy? Suicide? Not a chance.

Was there any kind of foul play?

No. Holtzy had been sick for a week — just a regular cold. And then…

Holtz is the de facto dad of the Wolverines hockey team. As a 23-year-old senior, he’s one of the older players of the group. Plus, he’s smart — a mechanical engineering major — who has a knack for solving problems. 

Have a homework question? Ask Holtzy. 

Craving a home-cooked meal? Holtzy is a helluva cook.

Having trouble understanding a certain play in practice? You guessed it. Ask Holtzy.

Back on Ice: After a harrowing journey of illness and recovery, Steven Holtz navigates his way through the Boston University defense. [UM photo]

“If there’s a solution that guys are trying to figure out, they will bring it to Steve to be the judge to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. So, he’s kind of the deciding factor of all arguments and everything,” Truscott says. “One time we’re trying to figure out housing — the right house, who’s living where — and he came up with a solution. He’s always got the answer.”

Holtz and Truscott met in their freshman year at Michigan. Truscott was two years younger coming out of the United States Hockey Development Program. Holtz was 20, an older freshman who had aged out of junior league hockey and nearly gave up the sport for good not too long ago.

He was 17, entering his senior year of high school, when he told his parents he was thinking of quitting and possibly making a run at collegiate golf. He was a skilled two-sport athlete in high school, swapping out his hockey stick for a golf club and even receiving some interest from colleges for how he swung the club. Plus, he just didn’t have that passion for hockey that he once had. It wasn’t like his younger days of skating on the ponds during the Michigan winters playing with his buddies and just having fun.

That might have been shocking news to his Canadian parents, who hailed from a country where hockey ruled above all. Couldn’t he at least finish out his senior season? Okay, sure. But rather than worry about how he’s playing or trying to impress anyone or concern himself about college offers, he was going to play for the love of the game. 

And you know what, the craziest thing happened: without the pressure and added stress of trying to be great, he blossomed. He led his team in points as a defenseman. He picked up speed and flew around the rink. Soon, colleges took notice, and junior teams began asking about him.

Suddenly, he’s getting drafted in the 20th round of the United States Hockey League by the Youngstown Phantoms in Ohio, where he’s invited out to camp. Holtz figures he doesn’t stand a chance of making the team, but what the hell, why not give it a shot. Go skate around, race home to high school graduation, hang up hockey for good.

But wait. He made the 30-man roster? It turns out he impressed the coaches with his speed and smarts on the ice, so they offered him a spot as a defenseman. But not just any defenseman, the last one on the depth chart. 

“I’ve been told that a lot in my career,” Holtz admits. 

That’s okay. You know the best part about being at the bottom of the depth chart, right? The only move is up. Holtz took his position and worked his ass off, all while maintaining that carefree spirit, and soon enough, he earned a spot in the lineup as the team prepared for the playoffs.

By now, Holtz was getting plenty of looks from colleges. But he only had one in mind: the University of Michigan. Yeah, sure, he’s a Michigan boy, so of course he wanted to go to the maize and blue, but it went deeper. During his downtime in Youngstown, he often searched for the best engineering schools. There were some promising programs, but they didn’t have hockey; others had hockey but no engineering. But at the top of the list for both: Yep, the University of Michigan.

By the end of his first year in the USHL, a developmental league that serves as a stepping stone for college hockey, Holtz had gone on an official visit and accepted an offer to become a Wolverine. Part of the agreement was he would play one more year with Youngstown before transferring to Ann Arbor.

Holtz was ecstatic. Not only would he get to play college hockey — for the University of freakin’ Michigan — but he’d join the mechanical engineering program and follow in his father’s footsteps. One more season and he’d be on his way.

Only — hold on a second ... Why was Michigan telling him he’d have to wait another year to join the team? Something about … they weren’t ready for him??? It didn’t make sense. This isn’t how the plan was supposed to go… 

Nearing 20, Holtz was about to age out of the junior leagues that limited players to 20 years or younger. His frustrations also grew in Youngstown. He’d been out of school for more than a year, and while playing hockey was great, he had a lot of downtime off the rink that he filled with video games and sitting around his house. He missed classes and the structured routine that came with school.

A symbol of resilience and leadership, Steven Holtz overcame a life-threatening illness and returned to the University of Michigan hockey team. [UM photo]

“I love mathematics and sciences and learning the way things work and why they work,” he says.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but Holtz decommitted from Michigan, unsure where he’d go next. He asked Youngstown for a trade. Denied. What the hell, man? What’s going on? Why didn’t he just freakin’ quit hockey two years ago?  Holtz calls these moments in his life “shit sandwiches.” 

“I’ve eaten my fair share,” he says. “And sometimes you gotta eat it, right, to get to where you need to go.”

As Jacob Truscott watched paramedics wheel away his teammate and best friend into the back of an ambulance, he sat on a curb with his roommates and said a prayer. 

By now, an unknown sickness was clearly spreading through the Michigan hockey team, leaving the club shorthanded for a slew of games. Most players dealt with the effects of a regular cold and didn’t have to go to the hospital. But not Holtzy. He was taken to the intensive care unit and placed in a medically induced coma. Nurses intubated him and inserted a feeding tube while IVs flooded his arms, all to keep him alive while doctors ran dozens of tests to determine what was plaguing him.

Behind the scenes at the university, coaches and administrators feared an outbreak — bacterial meningitis? — that could close the entire school. Even Truscott fell sick, and after seeing what happened to Holtz, he went to the hospital to be checked out. 

Unknown at the time, it was an adenovirus outbreak spreading throughout the team. The virus attacks the body like the flu or a common cold, often leaving a person feeling feverish or with a sore throat for a few days. “Rarely,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “otherwise healthy people with adenovirus infections will become so ill that they need to be hospitalized and may die.”

Holtz spent three days in a coma. Or was it four? His memory from the time is a bit foggy. He remembers seeing Rory McIlroy playing golf on the TV in his room. Days passed. When he woke up, he lost all sense of time. He forgot faces and didn’t recognize the names texting him. He stared out his window at the university’s campus without a clue of what lay beyond the pane.

He had trouble speaking and struggled to find the words to share with the nurses about how he was feeling. He had no recollection of the past months. As far as he was knew, he was 21 again, not weeks away from turning 23. What he did know — and what he was adamant about — is he wanted out of the hospital and to get back to his life. Whatever that looked like.

In his mom’s car on the way home, they drove down South University Avenue, past the Brown Jug, where he and the boys go to watch football on Sundays, or Joe’s Pizza, home of the best pizza in Ann Arbor, and past the street leading to his girlfriend’s apartment. He couldn’t recall a thing.

At home, it was even worse. He stood puzzled in the front yard. Was this really his house? Inside, everything felt off. And truthfully, it’s hard to explain. Why was the living room so big and the TV so small? Same with his room. Big room, small bed. Listen, he gets it. It sounds crazy! Of course, the house was the same size. The TV, too. Even his bed. He doesn’t understand it himself.

“It’s like I was walking into a new world,” he says today. “It’s seriously like I went to a different planet.”

He lost more than 45 pounds in the hospital after more than a week of barely eating. So, his mom took him and a few teammates out to a steakhouse for his favorite meal. Surely, a juicy ribeye with mashed potatoes and asparagus would warm his spirit, maybe even give him some sense of normalcy.

Only Holtz couldn’t stomach the steak. It was too buttery and salty and melt in your mouthy — basically, all the things that make a great steak. Yeah, weird, he can’t explain that one, either. If not steak, then what?

“I was content eating applesauce and popsicles,” he says.

As he sat home and recovered, he watched movies he’d seen dozens of times. Take Happy Gilmore, the Adam Sandler flick of a failed hockey player turned unorthodox professional golfer, giving us one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history: Happy Gilmore fighting Bob Barker at a celebrity golf tournament. “The price is wrong!” Nope — can’t recall that. Same with music. On the plus side, it was like seeing all your favorite movies and TV shows and hearing all your favorite songs for the first time again. Can you imagine watching Walter White break bad again with fresh eyes?

Focused and determined, Steven Holtz has displayed extraordinary resilience on and off the ice. [UM photo]

Hockey was no different. When Holtz laced up his skates for the first time since his accident — that’s what he calls his sickness and hospital stay — it was like stepping on the icy pond for the first time as a young boy with his double-bladed skates. 

Gone was the man who’d made a career of being a villain on the ice. Holtz developed a reputation as the defenseman who would shut down the team’s best forwards. The one who doesn’t let them get a clear look at the net, who’s constantly checking them into the boards, who frustrates them because they haven’t scored a goal or recorded any points, who is constantly pissing them off to no end. In the simplest terms, “I want to be the guy when someone sees me on the ice and they say, ‘I don’t want to go against him.’” But after his accident, he didn’t have the strength. Deep inside — where all our darkest fears reside — is where Holtz feared he may never again.

Once again, through no fault of his own, Holtz found himself back at the bottom of the depth chart.

After Holtz decommitted from Michigan and Youngstown denied his trade request, he found himself at another crossroads eating his favorite sandwich. He couldn’t go back to Youngstown. Not after he asked to leave. That would be too awkward. But if not there, where?

There was the British Columbia Hockey League half a world away in Canada. Maybe they would take him. Maybe a major move for his last year of juniors would do him some good. He spoke with the head coach for the Penticton Vees and suddenly found himself in Penticton, Canada, home of “God’s Country,” as he calls it.

Penticton is a fairly small town that sits five hours east of Vancouver. It’s nestled between the Okanagan and Skaha lakes, which is convenient because it boasts more than “2,000 hours of sunlight a year,” according to the city’s website. 

“I can’t believe I got to play hockey there,” Holtz says.

Holtzy shined in Penticton, leading the team’s defensemen with eight goals and 27 points. With his success came college offers. We’re talking Harvard, Ohio State, and a slew of others. And then came Michigan…

Yeah, that Michigan.

You can almost hear the call, can’t you? We don’t like where we left things. We want you back. Listen, it wasn’t you; it was us. We had to find ourselves. We still love you. Okay, maybe less rom-com, but you get the idea.

Holtz, understandably, was skeptical. Why the sudden change of heart? He was enjoying being recruited. He was a bachelor playing the field for any college that wanted him, for chrissakes! It’s not like he didn’t have options. But, man, there was just something about the allure of the University of Michigan. It was, after all, his first love, and here she was asking for another chance. 

“I had conversations with my family, my agent. Who the hell recruits someone twice?” he says. “Like they’re either messing with me, or they really want me there.”

Turns out, they really wanted him. And Holtzy really wanted them, too.

It wasn’t a ride-off-into-the-sunset relationship early on, not even a honeymoon phase. In fact, Holtz was frustrated. He came to Michigan ready to showcase his skills. But Michigan was good. Like really good. Five players were drafted into the NHL during his freshman season, headlined by Owen Power, who was taken first overall by the Buffalo Sabres.

Steven Holtz hoists the Big Ten Tournament trophy after a season of unimaginable challenges and victories. [UM photo]

You probably get it by now: Holtzy at the bottom of the depth chart once again. Are you serious? After all he’s been through. Why did he even recommit here?  

Patience. His coach at the time, Mel Pearson, told him that all his gains would come during practice. Okay. If he was going to improve, he was going to give his all during practice ‘cause he was going to prove he belonged among the best. Only maybe back off some, Holtzy, and don’t be so aggressive with our best guys. God, could he do anything right?  

School was also proving difficult. It’s not like he was walking back into basic algebra. No, this was the University of Michigan engineering, with advanced calculus and fluid dynamics built into the curriculum. It was a wake-up call for Holtz, who had largely been away from school for three years now. He needed some time to shake off the educational rust. Only there wasn’t a lot of time because his mornings were filled with classes, followed immediately by practices that lasted into the evening, and then it was time for dinner and homework and bed. Rinse and repeat. 

But there’s Holtzy again fighting as hard as he can to prove he belongs. He gained 15 pounds in the weight room and got faster and stronger and more skilled on the ice, a byproduct of practicing with some of the best players in college hockey. 

He didn’t play in a single game during his freshman season. Frustrating, for sure, but an experience that “shaped me who I am now.” Same with the first half of his sophomore year. No time on the ice. Are you freakin’ kidding me? 

Then team captain Nick Blankenburg got hurt. And Blakenburg, seeing Holtz's gains on and off the ice, walked into the coach’s office and said Holtzy needs to be in the lineup. And sure enough, there he was, finally playing for the University of Michigan Wolverines, ready to harass opposing team’s offenses. Doing what he does best.

Only — oh my god, you’re kidding, not again. Yep, freak accident. Right when he was playing so well. Against rival Ohio State, no less.

Holtz got pinned against the boards. He tried to free himself and fell to the ice, extending his arms to brace himself. One of his arms gave out under him. Separated shoulder. Torn labrum. Shoulder surgery. Six-month recovery. Season over.

Junior year would be his year. Put a stamp on that. 

Only — oh my god, here we go again…

Holtz missed 16 games after his accident. It wasn’t just his physical health that held him off the ice. He missed the end of the fall semester and took incompletes in many of his classes, ruling him ineligible to start the spring. 

Returning to class wasn’t easy, either. His memory was still foggy as he stared at his calculus or fluid dynamics homework without knowing how to solve the problems. He rewatched lectures and saw himself sitting in class, asking questions, without any memory of actually being there.

Luckily, he had notebooks filled with lectures from past semesters he used to jog his memory. It’s like little light bulbs would turn on — a series of small a-ha! moments — when it would all start clicking again.

Holtz planned to return to the ice on February 18 for the team’s outdoor Faceoff on the Lake game against rival Ohio State. It was more for his mental well-being than anything. There are only so many movies and TV shows you can catch up on again, even if it is your second first time watching them. He was academically cleared to play and returned to the starting lineup on February 3 to a standing ovation at Yost Ice Arena. 

“I think everyone had a tear in their eye,” Michigan head coach Brandon Naurato says.

“Goosebumps,” Holtz remembers. 

Steven Holtz: The heart and soul of the Michigan Wolverines. [UM photo]

There are moments in sports that transcend what happens on the playing field. Think Tiger Woods winning the 2019 Masters tournament. Michael Jordan’s flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals. The USA men’s hockey team in the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Or Steven Holtz in the opening round of the 2023 Big 10 Hockey Tournament.

The second-seeded Michigan Wolverines opened the tournament heavily favored in a best-of-3 match-up against the seventh-seeded Wisconsin Badgers. Michigan had won the regular season series, 4-1, but none of that matters in the postseason. The Badgers outplayed and outworked the Wolverines for the first two periods and took a 5-4 lead early in the third. Down one goal with 23 seconds left, Michigan found the back of the net to force overtime. Sudden death. Next goal wins it. 

The hard truth about overtime in sports is that anything can happen. Anything, like, a team’s defenseman who nearly died from a mysterious illness he still doesn’t fully understand and who just happens to be skating to the top of the blue line … right as his teammate spins near the side boards, deep in the opponent’s zone … and passes the puck to the point … and that defenseman fires a wrist shot toward the net, not necessarily looking to score, but to create chaos and confusion in hopes that maybe the puck will ricochet into the net…

Only — he scores! 



Holtz skates to the other end of the ice near Michigan’s student section, where he’s mobbed by teammates as Yost Ice Arena erupts, possibly the loudest it’s ever been.

Can you believe it? Three months ago, he was in the ICU fighting for his life, and now he finds himself at the bottom of a dog pile having stepped up at a moment when his team needed someone most. 


“It was an out-of-body experience,” Naurato says. “It was so surreal, just with everything he’s been through. It’s really special.”

“To see his perseverance and everything he’s been through, all the adversities, the feast and famine overcome, and to do something like that was special,” Truscott says. “It was truly one of my favorite moments of my career.” 

“It was just an unbelievable feeling,” Holtz says. “After all that’s happened to me, it’s almost like you knew it was going to happen.”

Holtz feels like he’s back to his normal self these days. That is to say, he’s still a mellow, laid-back, chill guy who enjoys playing hockey and golf, hanging out with his friends and girlfriend, while finishing his senior year of college. Truth be told, though, it’s hard to say for sure. There are still blank spots in his memory of who he was before his trauma. He’s not sure if they’ll ever come back.

But maybe that’s okay. Because he’s alive, and every day he’s grateful for getting another chance. If there’s anything he’s learned, it’s that “life is really hard and it’s not always going to be roses and sunshine all the time. You have to understand you’re going to get your fair share of shit sandwiches and you’re going to have to eat them.”

The heart of the Wolverines, showcasing the lighter side of life.

He’s learned to focus on the present and make time to appreciate the good he has in his life: a family who loves him, supportive friends, a place to call home, an opportunity to play the sport he loves, to wake up and make the most out of every day. Yeah, yeah, he gets it; it all sounds a bit…cliché. But, really, it’s the god’s honest truth.  

His life was nearly stripped away by a virus that typically is no worse than a common cold. That kind of experience can really change your perspective.

Advertising and sponsorship opportunities are available. Contact Jim Hoos at or 602-525-1363.

Matt Keyser

Published 2 months ago